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Comforting During Disasters

by on April 29, 2014
Pickles and Bungee ready to help and comfort

Pickles and Bungee, HOPE AACR Volunteers, ready to help and comfort.

When tragedy strikes a community and people are distressed, the simple act of petting a dog can give comfort that no words can offer.

Raquel Lackey and her two dogs, Pickles and Bungee, have been to the Washington area devastated by the mudslides since March 23 – one day after the landslide.

HOPE AACR Volunteer Rachel Lackey and her dog "Pickles" taking a quick break.

HOPE AACR Volunteer Rachel Lackey and her dog “Pickles” taking a quick break.

People in Snohomish County, Wash., have lost loved ones and lost their homes. Finding the smallest amount of comfort goes a long way.

Raquel has been taking her crisis-response comfort dogs to the disaster zone, assistance centers and schools where victims and emergency responders are able to interact with her dogs and disregard, even for a bit, all the damage they have witnessed.

“Just the simple act of being there makes the victims and first responders feel a little sense of relief,” said Raquel Lackey, Hope Animal-Assisted Crisis Response volunteer. “My dogs can literally take their pain away and absorb any feelings of despair and exchange them with peace and understanding.”

Crisis-response comfort dogs (Pickles & Rex) met an extraordinary group of first responders at the edge of the mudslide.

Crisis-response comfort dog Rex met an extraordinary group of first responders at the edge of the mudslide. Pickles was comforting someone else at the time of this picture

Hope Crisis Response, a nonprofit organization that provides animal-assisted support to people traumatized by crises and disasters has sent many dogs to Oso, Wash., and surrounding areas, they along with the National Animal-Assisted Crisis Response Canines, K-9 Extra Mile and Reading With Rover (therapy dogs) have sent more than 40 dogs so far this year. These dogs are able to be in emotionally charged situations and not get fatigued. They are able to bring victims to the present moment so they can process what they’ve been through and gain a little bit of energy. And, for first responders, these dogs can make them more collaborative and motivated to continue to work on that particular disaster.

“The Snohomish County Emergency Operations Center (EOC) currently has hundreds of people assisting from various organizations,” said Lackey. “One of the first responders told me that he had been to many disasters and he believes that everyone has been working collaboratively because the dogs are taking away their stress, and that’s why they are not snapping at each other.”

Golden Retriever Rex poses with first responders in Oso, Washington.

Golden Retriever Rex poses with first responders in Oso, Washington.

Dogs can recognize when someone needs emotional support, said Lackey. When people are afraid, they emit a pheromone in their sweat and breath. Lackey also noted Pickles, as well as other dogs, probably picks up on that scent. Being around dogs can have a calming effect. Studies have shown that physiological changes occur when people touch dogs: a drop in heart rate, lower blood pressure and reduced stress. They offer a little boost of happiness to victims and first responders to keep going and look at the future.

Hard work, dedication, and specialized training are required for a dog and its handler to become a crisis-response team. The dog must be registered as a therapy animal and pass a pre-screening test. Each team then completes an intensive 40-hour workshop that includes riding on different modes of transportation and participating in mock disasters. The owners must learn how to detect stress in their dogs and themselves. Teams that pass the initial stage undergo additional training as a group and with other organizations such as the American Red Cross and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Pickles with another comfort-dog buddy take a  looking over the slide.  Snohomish County, WA.

Pickles with another comfort-dog buddy take a look over the slide.
Snohomish County, WA.

“Another vivid example that makes this so very rewarding is when I was in the disaster zone at the beginning of the activation and saw one of the first responders exhausted, but he kept looking at my lab,” Lackey said. “I walked to him, my dog offered a hug, the first responder whispered ‘thank you I needed that.’”

To learn more about HOPE Animal-Assistance Crisis Response, visit


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